NW Coast ‘cat’ discoveries: English and ¡Spanish! loans

Languages of the northern Pacific Northwest coast have an odd form of word for ‘cat’, in all 3 unrelated language families:

nwc cat

NWC cat by Ben Houstie, Bella Bella (image credit: Native Northwest Select)
  • Alaskan Haida dúus, Masset Haida duus, Skidegate Haida daws
  • Tsimshian: Sm’algyax duusdoosh
  • Tlingit dóosh

This word shows up in further languages of the North Coast area, such as Eyak and Tahltan, which certainly got it from Tlingit.

John Enrico’s gigantic, very informative dictionary of Haida sees this word as coming “From Tlingit…which borrowed it from Athabaskan ‘lynx’ “. This etymology cites an unpublished set of “comparative Athabaskan materials” by Jeff Leer at the Alaska Native Language Center.

Enrico doesn’t show us an Athabaskan form, and I haven’t found a copy of Leer’s document, so I’ve gone a-researching:

None of these resembles duus. In fact various northern Athabaskan languages use their own indigenous word for ‘lynx’ to denote the domestic ‘cat’! So I think Leer and Enrico are both missing the true story. 

A more frequent claim by linguists, without supporting documentation (uh-oh!), is that this duus developed from a claimed Euro-American source, “puss”, perhaps via Chinuk Wawa, where it’s one of the words for ‘cat’.

For me, a difficulty in the latter version of this idea is that the Chinook Jargon wasn’t known to be present in the northern NW Coast until roughly the time when Russia sold Alaska to the USA in 1867. Did ships’ cats not exist out here until such a late date, even though everyone knew ships normally were infested with rodents that lived off the ample food stores? Did coastal folks have to wait for the Jargon to be brought in, so they’d have a word for the ‘cats’ who kept those rats & mice under control??

And we know that when CJ came into contact with Tlingit, its words typically underwent different sound changes from this /p/ => /d/. For example, Chinuk Wawa’s liprét / liplét for ‘priest’ became the expected nakwnéit in Tlingit, which routinely turns foreign /p/ sounds into its native /kw/

The shift /p/ => /d/ that we’re hypothesizing for northern-NWC languages’ ‘cat’ word seems more radical, less intuitive, to me than that. 

And the other big language family in the northern NWC, Tsimshian, natively contains /p/-type sounds, so it hasn’t had to make remarkable substitutions for foreign /p b/ etc. If puss had been directly loaned from English into Tsimshian, we’d expect the word for ‘cat’ there to be pronounced *pus.

The clue that unraveled the longstanding mystery of how puss could’ve developed into duus came to me in the form of John Box Hoskins’ 1791 Haida Tsook/Too ‘to Discharge a gun or bow’, i.e. ‘to shoot’.

There are a few other words in Hoskins’ “Haida” lexicon that have to be traced to the then-incipient “Nootka Jargon”, such as peeshuck/peesuck for ‘bad’. So I suggest we compare his Too/Tsook with NJ p’u ‘shoot’. (Which additionally became a Chinuk Wawa word.) 

How is this a valid comparison? Well, it’s because Haida almost entirely lacks bilabial stops, /p p’ b/ sounds. In their first contacts with speakers of European languages, Haidas might have been flummoxed at how to pronounce the exotic /p/ of English. Just think of Hawai’ians in the same era, who approximated English /s/ with their native /k/. (Mele Kalikimaka!)

Thus we may have a solution here to the mysterious pan-North Coast word for ‘cat’ ~ duus. (Hoskins’ Haida word for ‘cat’ is also translated as ‘dog’ and it’s the native Haida word for the latter.)

When we think specifically of Haidas, who we know were the main northern-NWC trading partners of early visiting ships, whose crew make clear that Tlingits and Tsimshians were of peripheral interest, we see that the first loanwords from European languages in the area most likely came in via the Haida language. 

(I remind you, this loanword would’ve been puss from English, not pus / p’us from Chinook Jargon, because I’ve elsewhere shown that CJ didn’t apparently exist until later — 1794 at the earliest.)

An argument you can raise against what I’m saying is, well, Hoskins includes the Nootka Jargon word peesuck / peeshuck in his list of words used with and/or by Haidas, and it contains an unchanged /p/. Were Haidas able to say only this /p/, but not the /p/-sounds in the words for ‘shoot’ and ‘cat’?

I’m inclined to think not.

I suspect Hoskins recognized peeshuck / peesuck as Nootka Jargon and therefore wrote this word as he himself was accustomed to saying & hearing it. (Even though Haidas were probably pronouncing it more like teesuck in their /p/-less and “sh”-less language.)

But he likely didn’t realize Too and the even more exotic Tsook were from that same lingo, where he would’ve been perfectly familiar with a pronunciation like /p(‘)u/

An important phonetic detail to finish up with is this — neither Haida nor Tsimshian have a “sh” sound, only /s/. But that sound in both languages can sound like “sh”, to my perception. (Note all the “sh” digraphs in the Metlakatla Tsimshian dictionary.) This can help explain why this word wound up being dóosh in Tlingit, which does have a distinction between “s” and “sh”. If the word puss had been directly loaned from English into Tlingit, we’d expect it to be pronounced as *kwóos

Summary: duus for ‘cat’ in the indigenous northern NW Coast languages is an early Haida borrowing from English puss. It was then passed along to Tsimshian and Tlingit; those languages further shared it with their neighbours. 

Bonus fact:

ncn territories

Image credit: Native-Land.ca)

Note, cats in Nuuchahnulth land were on the same ships that would’ve introduced them to Haidas at the same era.

But no dialect of Vancouver Island’s Nuuchahnulth language known to me has this /pus/ form for ‘cat’.

Instead, they all have either: 

  • pi(i)špiš (shared with known Chinuk Wawa-influenced languages, and looking to me like a Salish diminutive in its vocalism and reduplication)
  • or — only in the areas that were central to the earliest Spanish and other Euro-American contacts and fur trading — the apparent Spanish loan kaatu (from gato)!
    This form shows up in Mowachaht, Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’ (Kyuquot), Ehattisaht, and Nuchatlaht.

This is the only Spanish loanword I’m aware of in a Northwest Coast indigenous language. (As opposed to interior PNW languages, where we find a couple such relating to the old overland “horse packing” business.) Neither Stonham’s dictionary nor “T’aat’aaqsapa” point it out as one, and I haven’t located any discussion of this fact in a literature search that I’ve conducted.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?